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Aug. 29, 2006
DeKalb, Ill. — Zhili Xiao stands at the forefront of something really big—and something unimaginably small.
The Northern Illinois University physicist is making major advances in the world of nanoscience, where researchers are developing materials, electronics and machines so small they approach atomic scale.
R&D Magazine has named an ultra-fast hydrogen sensor developed by Xiao’s research team at Argonne National Laboratory as one of the world’s top 100 scientific and technological innovations of 2005. Based on nanotechnology, the sensors could be made smaller than a grain of sand and will greatly increase safety for future hydrogen-powered vehicles.
On top of that major recognition, Xiao also recently was awarded two federal grants for separate projects aiming to develop superconducting nanomaterials. Together the grants total more than $520,000.
“Zhili received more good news over the course of a few weeks this summer than some scientists receive over the course of their careers,” said Rathindra Bose, NIU vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School . “He is breaking new ground in nanoscience, a field that could spur the next technological revolution.”
Xiao holds a joint appointment as an associate professor in the Department of Physics at NIU and a physicist in the Materials Science Division at Argonne. Five of the top 100 innovations on this year’s R&D Magazine list, which will be published in September, were developed by Argonne scientists.
Since 1963, the magazine has annually recognized inventors with the prestigious R&D 100 awards, once dubbed the “Oscars of invention” by the Chicago Tribune.
Argonne Director Bob Rosner congratulated the winners, saying, “I am thrilled that Argonne staff members have been recognized for their important innovations with these prestigious awards. Winning such awards attests to the high quality of research at Argonne and to the caliber of our staff.”
Argonne not only claims some of the world’s top scientific minds but also boasts world-class research facilities that allow scientists to peer into and study the universe at the nanolevel, which can’t be observed with traditional high powered microscopes. Nanotechnology dimensions are less than 100 nanometers. By comparison, the thickness of a single human hair equals about 100,000 nanometers.
Other members of Xiao’s research team are Argonne’s Glenn Seaborg Postdoctoral Fellow Michael Zach and Argonne postdoctoral researcher Tao Xu, a newly hired assistant professor in the NIU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The researchers will receive their 2006 R&D 100 Award at a black-tie banquet in October at Chicago’s Navy Pier.
In addition to its potential use in hydrogen-powered vehicles, the sensor developed by the team could have applications in space stations, mining and medical devices.
Highly flammable hydrogen gas cannot be odorized like natural gas and takes tens to hundreds of seconds to detect by other more expensive methods. The new sensor detects hydrogen in less than one-tenth of a second and at low-enough levels to allow closing of safety valves before dangerous concentrations are reached. Argonne’s patent on the sensor has been licensed and is being commercialized by Makel Engineering with the help of Edison Materials Technology Center.
“The behavior of materials at ever smaller length scales promises remarkably rich new vistas for basic science and technology in the coming decades,” Xiao said. “It has stimulated the worldwide intensive competition in nanotechnology research.”
Xiao’s newly funded projects combine nanotechnology with his other research specialty, superconductivity (the flow of electric current without resistance).
The National Science Foundation is providing $300,000 to Xiao’s team for its investigation of shaped superconducting mesocrystals, which exhibit a wide range of phenomena at the nanoscale. At the nanoscale, manipulation of matter requires an entirely different knowledge base because the rules of classical physics no longer apply.
Several years ago, Xiao’s team designed a method for producing nanocrystals of specific size and shape. Both size and shape influence the crystals’ behavior.
Xiao’s second project also probes the world of superconductivity at the nanoscale. The U.S. Department of Energy is providing $220,500 for the development and study of superconducting nanowires.
“In order to develop electronic nanodevices, superconducting nanowires are needed to connect these devices,” Xiao explains. “Superconductivity is necessary. Otherwise, resistance to the flow of electricity would burn up the non-superconducting nanowires.”
An associate of the Institute for NanoScience, Engineering and Technology at NIU, Xiao encourages graduate-student participation in his research activities. The research also allows him to incorporate new discoveries into his courses.
“He’s been here only two years and is already making his mark,” said Distinguished Research Professor Clyde Kimball, director of the NIU Institute for NanoScience, Engineering and Technology. “His efforts have resulted in a tremendous boost to nanoscience—and to the reputation of NIU.”